Friday, 22 October 2010

Writing Women Back into History

This illustration, from Wikipedia Media Commons, depicts medieval women hunting.

This article of mine was originally published in the May 2008 issue of Solander Magazine, published by the Historical Novel Society.

We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.

This is not your fault or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed into the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father and the celebrated chronicle of my brother.

Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover the buried histories of women, we historical novelists must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. To create engaging and nuanced portraits of women in history, we must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks.

At its best, historical fiction can indeed play a crucial role in writing women back into history and challenging our misperceptions about women in the past. In her stunning novel The Red Tent, Anita Diamant turns our image of women in the Old Testament on its head by allowing the Biblical Dinah to tell her own story in her own voice. Donna Cross’s novel Pope Joan explores the tantalizing possibility that a 9th century woman might have once sat on the papal throne. In The Thrall’s Tale, Judith Lindbergh paints an unforgettable portrait of Thorbjorg, the 10th century Norse seidkona, or seeress, straight off the pages of the Saga of Erik the Red. Paul Anderson’s 1376 page epic Hunger’s Brides illuminates the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun who became the greatest New World poet of her age. Sor Juana fans will also want to read Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s novel Sor Juana’s Second Dream.

While many authors have focused on documented historical figures, others have embraced the ellipses in history as an invitation to speculate on women’s secret lives and untold stories. “Where history and biography are about the public world, fiction is about the private world,” says Jude Morgan, author of Passion and Indiscretion. “And that [private world] was perforce the women’s world, too: the private, often including the hidden and the unspoken. That’s where historical fiction can be revealing.” In her novels Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith, Sarah Waters imagines the smoldering passions that might have passed between women behind the façade of prim Victorian decorum. Jean Rhys, in her masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea, resurrects the silenced Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and brings her to life as a tragically misunderstood Creole heiress. Louise Erdrich has written an entire body of work portraying the women (and men) of her mother’s line, the Anishinaabe Nation.

Not surprisingly, many of these novels that capture the hidden truths of women’s histories have been runaway bestsellers. Diamant’s Red Tent, first published in 1997 with no advertising budget, became a word of mouth blockbuster and went on to sell to 25 foreign markets, while Cross’s Pope Joan is now in its 18th printing and inspired a major motion picture starring German-born actress Franka Potente. Louise Erdrich’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning first novel Love Medicine has never been out of print.

At the end of the day, it’s a question of knowing your market. Although it’s hard to pin-point precise figures, the majority of buyers and readers of historical fiction appear to be women and they seem to crave books that present compelling portraits of strong female protagonists.

Most interesting is the possibility that historical fiction’s rewriting of women’s history has wider repercussions in the world of nonfiction.

“Historical fiction has a way of bringing figures neglected (or subordinated) by the history books back into the foreground,” says Bethany Latham, Managing Editor of HNR. “Historical fiction can do this where history tomes fail because it is fiction –it’s not bound strictly by documented fact. For instance, an historical fiction author can write an engrossing novel centering around a ‘minor’ female courtier, where a truly enlightening biography of the woman is problematic due to the dearth of historical information about her (think Philippa Gregory's Boleyn Inheritance versus Julia Fox’s exceedingly speculative biography of Viscountess Rochford).

“Historical fiction treatments thrust historical female figures, whether they be aristocrats or serving maids, into the public eye,” Latham continues. “Nonfiction authors cannot help but be influenced by the rampant popularity of a particular historical period or person promulgated by historical fiction and the screen adaptations the novels spawn; it causes them to look for their own ‘angle’ – for what hasn’t been done, what’s been overlooked – in order to focus their research on it. . . . Historical fiction can grab [women] by the farthingale and drag them into the limelight, leading to greater interest in them, more research into their lives, and subsequently a greater understanding of the part women have played in history.”

jay Dixon, author of The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon: 1909-1990s, speculates that historical novelists may have been pioneers in the women’s history movement. “Ever since the publication of Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History in 1973, feminists have been trying to rescue women from their invisibility in male discourses of history,” says Dixon. “But prior to that, women authors, in their historical novels, fore-fronted women – the wealthy, the poor, the powerful and the downtrodden – from all periods and all locales. Using imagination alongside research, they told the stories that could have happened, and maybe did. And in doing so not only gave voices to the voiceless, but also changed our perception of the past.”

HNR Editor Sarah Johnson cites Anya Seton’s classic novel The Winthrop Woman, first published in 1958, which tells the story of 17th century Elizabeth Winthrop, wife of Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The novel reveals how she defied her husband and community in order to befriend Anne Hutchinson, the famous heretic who later went on to found the colony of Rhode Island.

Exploding myths

Unfortunately writers can run into problems when they present a view of historical women that challenges our common misperceptions. On the one hand, readers and critics are justifiably skeptical about novelists who present plucky historical heroines with attitudes that feel too contemporary and thus anachronistic to their time and place. On the other hand, if you sit down and do the research, you will discover that every epoch had its radical voices, movers and shakers, extraordinary women who rocked the establishment. Think of Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I of England, Aphra Benn, Anne Bonny the Pirate Queen, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Parks, to name a few. Too often readers and, unfortunately some reviewers, appear to have a distorted and uninformed view of women in history and seem too quick to label any strong heroine anachronistic, even if the author has backed up the fiction with considerable research. Too often we base our picture of women in the past on the lazy assumption that all women throughout all of history were completely downtrodden and disempowered.

In preparation for the Rewriting Women’s History panel at the 2007 HNS North American Conference in Albany, New York, I conducted an informal survey with members of the HNS email discussion list, asking what they thought were the most annoying historical clichés about women. Here are some of the responses:

Women’s lives were completely limited to the domestic sphere.

Before Betty Friedan came along, all women were housewives and mothers and nothing else.

Women in the Victorian era led lives of leisure. (In fact, very few did.)

Women in the past did not enjoy sex.

Dr. Irene Burgess, Provost and Dean of Eureka College, Illinois, reminds us that what we know – or think we know – about women in history is mediated and changes over time. “Representing historical women in twenty-first century fiction can be difficult,” Burgess points out, “because of the automatic lenses that a current audience places on the behavior of women from an older period. Because mores and language were so different, it’s frequently difficult for current-day readers to believe that women of the past had autonomy, capability, and choice.

“A lower class woman of the 14th century in England,” Burgess continues, “probably had greater degrees of freedom than an aristocratic woman of the 18th century in Italy. Although readers may perceive it as anachronistic to have a female weaver going to the tavern with some of her friends and telling her husband to take a hike if he protests, that probably did happen.”

Dr. Samantha Riches, Director of Studies for History and Archaeology at Lancaster University, UK, agrees that the reality of medieval women’s lives defy our popular conceptions. “The idea that women sat around creating tapestries and looking wistful is still quite widespread, largely due to Hollywood films perpetuating the same stereotyped ideas. Sources about women’s personal experiences are few and far between, but we do have a few gems like the Paston letters (accessible via the Internet Medieval Sourcebook), which can give us a real insight into the lives of late medieval women. In 1448 Margaret Paston wrote to her husband John with a shopping list including almonds, sugar and crossbows: he was away in London and she was aware that she would need to organize defense of their property in East Anglia against a neighbor with whom they were involved in a dispute.”

Although there are even fewer sources regarding the lives of common women, Riches believes that the visual evidence tends to indicate that women were employed in a wide range of occupations. Erika Uitz’s scholarly study Women in the Medieval Town reveals that women worked as merchants, money-lenders, brewers, and even miners. One of the book’s illustrations shows a detail of Hans Hesse’s early 16th century “Miners’ Altar” panel painting, which depicts a woman washing the heavy iron ore—a job that was even more backbreaking than mining.

The colorful lives of medieval women have inspired Paul Doherty’s most recent mystery series, centered on 14th century physician Mathilde of Westminster, who is based on a historical figure. “We tend to think of women’s rights developing over the centuries; this is simply not true,” Doherty said when I interviewed him in the May 2006 Historical Novels Review. “I think it was Dorothy Mary Stenton, the famous Anglo-Saxon historian, who pointed out that women had more rights in 1100 then they did in 1800!”

Indeed, the 1800s would appear a big stumbling block in our perceptions of the past. “The early 19th century marked the nadir of European women’s options and possibilities,” Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinsser write in A History of Their Own, Volume 2. “The creation of ‘women’s movements’ in the 19th century was in part a response to this.”

The Victorian era in particular has made a lasting imprint on the modern psyche. Suzanne Adair, author of Paper Woman and panelist at the Albany conference, notes that too often people look at women in the past through the lens of Victorian culture and base their view of women in completely disparate epochs on this stilted stereotype of the tightly corseted, sexually repressed Angel of the Home. “We like to think of ourselves as much more progressive than earlier generations,” Irene Burgess adds, “but when it comes to issues such as sexuality and the body, we actually are more repressed – a product of our Victorian ancestry. One only has to think of the Wife of Bath or the poems of Sappho to realize that that is the case.”

But even 19th century women’s lives were more complex than many realize: the Industrial Revolution drove countless women and girls out of the kitchens and into factories and mills, inspiring the line in the popular early 19th century folksong, The Weaver and the Factory Maid:

Where are the girls? I will tell you plain:
The girls have gone to weave by steam,
And to find them you must rise at dawn,
And trudge to the mill in the early morn.

As astute historians will point out, women throughout history have always worked. One of the experiences that inspired my third novel, The Vanishing Point, set in Colonial America, was a visit to a tiny Philadelphia row house where two 18th century seamstresses once lived and plied their trade. I felt immediately drawn into their world. It was exciting for me to see the proof that even in this era, when nearly every factor of the dominant religion and economy herded women into marriage and domesticity, some women still succeeded in carving out independent, masterless lives, ruled by neither father nor husband.

In Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich reveals that wives in Colonial America frequently acted as their spouse’s business partners, running shops and farms in tandem with their men, and sometimes taking over the role of “deputy husband,” which meant shouldering male duties, sometimes acting as surrogate if the husband were away. She cites one Edith Creford of Salem, Massachusetts, who acted as an attorney for her husband and signed a promissory note for £33, a considerable sum at that time. While researching my article Portals to Hidden Histories (Solander, November 2006), which showcased the living history sites at Historic St. Mary’s City, Jamestown Settlement and Colonial Williamsburg, I learned of 18th century businesswomen and entrepreneurs, such as Jane Vobe, who ran the King’s Arms Tavern in Williamsburg and Ann Wager, who founded the Bray School for African American children in 1760.

But the details of how women contributed to the economy tend to get buried under the perceived restrictions on these women’s lives and their subordinate place in their culture. When examining the rules women are expected to follow, Irene Burgess reminds us that “that rules and injunctions are only put in place when people actually do the behavior that is being controlled. So, ‘thou shalt not kill’ wouldn’t have been necessary if human beings weren’t so fond of slaughter. Similarly, telling women they had to be ‘chaste, silent, and obedient’ meant that probably, for the most part, women were not any of those things.”

Practical Writing Advice

So how can historical novelists create strong, authentic, and convincing female characters without resorting to either anachronism or lazy stereotypes?

Pick Your Heroine

Perhaps the most straightforward method is to choose an arresting historical figure, either famous or obscure, and delve deep into the research in order to bring her to life. Ask yourself what historical personae appeal to you and why.

“When I chose Juana la Loca as the subject for my second novel, I knew I’d set myself up for a challenge.” says CW Gortner, whose novel The Last Queen is published by Ballantine. “I’ve been obsessed by her since my childhood in Spain and I found the lurid myth of her life hard to believe. History is rarely kind to women, particularly women in power, so I set out to discover if the story of the ‘mad queen of Spain’ was true. It took six years of delving, but slowly the web of misinformation and calumny began to unravel. For nearly five hundred years, Juana of Castile’s story has been distorted because she posed a threat.”

Internationally best-selling author Sandra Gulland followed up her wildly popular Josephine Bonaparte Trilogy with a new novel focused on a much more elusive character: Louise de la Vallière, the first mistress of the Sun King, Louis XIV. “She is described as timid, something of a wallflower,” says Gulland of her heroine. “She was a daring horsewoman, a mistress to the Sun King, a Carmelite nun. The combination of these qualities intrigued me.”

Michelle Moran, whose debut novel Nefertiti was a national bestseller, finds herself drawn to the stories of infamous women whose lives have previously only been narrated through the words of men. “I’ve never been able to believe that women throughout history fit neatly into the simple categories that ancient writers created for them: that of the loyal virgin or the scheming harlot,” Moran states. “From Jezebel to Nefertiti, I find that rewriting women’s history is not just a career, it’s a calling.”

Zoom in on a specific historical event

The Pendle Witch Trial of 1612 provided the foundation for my most recent novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Seven women and two men were hanged as witches, based on the “evidence” given by a nine-year-old girl, who betrayed and condemned her own family. The most notorious of all the witches was the girl’s grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, who died in Lancaster Gaol before she came to trial. Researching the trial, I was deeply drawn into this family tragedy, especially the tale of Southerns herself, a cunning woman and healer of long standing, whose “charms” were Catholic prayers and whose reputation was so fearsome that court clerk Thomas Potts wrote that “no man escaped her, or her Furies.”

Katharine Weber’s acclaimed novel Triangle centers on the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. “It was striking to me how little the fire had been written about in books from then until the mid 1960s when a flourishing industry of books about the Triangle fire, most of them written for young girls, suddenly appeared, and have continued to appear every year. Why? It has to be the women’s movement. This helped me focus on one of the crucial themes of my novel, the way we don’t just tell our stories with agendas, we listen with agendas as well. . . . Triangle, like the fire itself, is a story about courageous women whose bravery was mostly obscured by the agendas of the moment.”

Focus on a particular subculture

One way to come up with a unique angle on history is to select your favorite historical period and then delve into a corner of that society that fascinates you.

Susanne Dunlap’s novels Emilie’s Voice and Liszt’s Kiss revolve around the world of music in 18th and 19th century Europe. Dunlap, who has a doctorate in music history from Yale, says that music was one way that talented women could distinguish themselves. “Women as performers were placed in the public eye and often then considered damaged goods – like prostitutes,” says Dunlap. “But many were able to support themselves and lead fulfilling artistic lives as singers, pianists, actresses. They achieved independence, and that was considered dangerous by men. Women as true creative artists – composers, painters, authors – were even more dangerous. Those are the stories that intrigue me, and give me the opportunity to rewrite women’s history.”

Keep it real for the reader

Author Melinda Hammond (A Rational Romance), who also writes as Sarah Mallory, reminds us that it’s essential to get the details right to keep your fiction convincing. “The trick is to create characters that are true to the period, yet have a resonance for a modern reader,” says Hammond. “It is important that we make readers aware of the prevailing customs and culture of a particular period or they will not understand why our characters act in a particular way. It is up to the writer to ‘set the stage,’ capture the spirit of the period and create the right background for the characters.”

Hammond believes that this is especially pertinent for romantic fiction. “In historical terms, romance is a relatively modern concept,” she explains. “It’s only in the last couple of centuries that people have come to expect to fall in love and marry.”

The future of women’s history

Samantha Riches believes that academic historians are moving away from the concept of “woman as other” to a more complex, multilayered view of the past. “For the last twenty to thirty years women’s history has been ‘recovered’ by academic historians, led by feminist commentators, not to the fullest extent possible for sure, but nevertheless I would argue that women are now featuring strongly in many studies of the past,” Riches states. “The extent to which this change has filtered through into popular perceptions is another matter, but I’d like to think that there is a gradual shift towards seeing the history of women as something that is integral to the study and understanding of the past, rather than as something separate and different.”

Sandra Gulland describes history as a continually moving target. “Our story of the past, how we understand it, is constantly in flux. New discoveries, new perspectives: all these help us to revise – reVISION – the past, or rather: the story of our past.”


  1. Excellent article, Mary, but the repressed Victorians in regard to sexuality is also a stereotype. I've written several articles on the subject. :-)